Many people new to veganism, especially in Western countries, overlook the nuances that come with this healthy diet. Perhaps they decide to become vegan after discovering yoga but don't fully understand how to live out their new eating plan. For example, they might reject almost all fats, including unsaturated varieties. They're unaware of or ignore the potential benefits of incorporating these important nutrients in their diet.
A Famous Example of a Vegan Bashing Fat
Once overweight and struggling to maintain a healthy lifestyle, former U.S. President Bill Clinton continues to keep the pounds off years after first adopting a vegan eating plan. Clinton traces his conversion to February 2010, when a surgeon placed stents in his heart during emergency surgery. As he touted his new eating habits in the following months, he said during an interview on CNN that he had virtually abandoned oil.
This statement is not surprising. The former president wanted to drop weight and reverse damage done to his heart. In such an overzealous state, he went too far in dismissing unsaturated fats that play a crucial role in the body's digestion system. However, it seems Clinton has seen the error of his ways. In a recent AARP article, the reporter described the president as enjoying a vegan feast that included vegetables tossed in extra-virgin olive oil.
Good Fat Versus Bad Fat
In the landscape of fats, it can be challenging to distinguish the good from the bad. In general, saturated fats, most of which come from meat and dairy products, raise the amount of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol in your blood. According to the American Heart Association, the sustained consumption of saturated fats makes it more likely you'll suffer from a stroke or heart disease. Blood type and disease risk should also be considered. By choosing to be vegan, you're automatically reducing your saturated fat intake.
It's worth noting that some plant-based foods, such as coconuts, palm oil and cocoa butter, do contain saturated fat. Because there are so many tasty and healthy foods rich in unsaturated fat, it's best to avoid eating these few plants that are high in saturated fat. However, if you're impressed with the potential benefits of coconut oil, make sure it comprises 30 percent or less of the fat you eat. That's the widely accepted dietary limit for saturated fat, regardless of the source.
A variety of plants also contain monounsaturated fat, which is good for your health. Monounsaturated fats can help reduce bad cholesterol and thus lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. Almonds, Brazil nuts and walnuts, for instance, have this kind of fat. Another food to try is tahini, a product made from sesame seeds. Don't overlook avocados, olive oil and soybeans, all of which have the kind of beneficial fat you want to incorporate into your nutrition plan.
Beyond Monounsaturated Fat
While some foods stand out as monounsaturated rock stars, others make their mark for having a high amount of polyunsaturated fat. This nutrient comes in two varieties: omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Food containing abundant amounts of these nutrients include flaxseed, chia seeds and green leafy vegetables, such as broccoli. Walnuts pull double duty because they're rich in both mono- and polyunsaturated fats. The polyunsaturated fats can also lower your bad cholesterol and bring down your likelihood of developing heart disease, but they also provide essential nutrients that build and maintain your body's cells, including omega fatty acids. One reason it's so critical to eat foods containing these fatty acids is because the human body can't produce them on its own.
It's important to know there are three kinds of omega-3 fatty acids, all of which help the body stay healthy: eicosapentaenoic (EPA), alpha-linolenic (ALA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA). Based on a typical vegan diet, you're likely to get ample amounts of ALA. The other two fatty acids come primarily through certain meats and seafood.
Because the body takes ALA and turns it into the other two kinds of omega-3 fatty acids, vegans don't usually need to worry about not getting DHA and EPA through food. However, if you're concerned and want to make sure you have adequate amounts of these two compounds, find a supplement containing marine algae. This is one of the few ways to get plant-based DHA and EPA.
Though the media has vilified cholesterol, it's essential to your body's ability to function properly. It helps build cell membranes, insulates nerves and contributes to hormone production. Your body relies on the liver to turn fat into cholesterol, which travels around the body through your blood.
Cholesterol comes in two forms. One protects the body, and the other has the potential to damage it. Problems arise when there's too much harmful cholesterol in your bloodstream, putting you at higher risk for cardiovascular disease. So, this is the heart of the matter: The dangerous cholesterol comes from saturated fat, and the good cholesterol comes from mono- and polyunsaturated fats.
Healing and Health from Good Fat
Plant-based fats not only enhance the taste of your food, but they also help make your body healthier. Take a look at omega-3 fatty acids €” they contribute to the normal functioning of the nervous system, eye health and healthy brain development.
Some doctors and nutrition experts suspect these fatty acids might lower your chances of developing blood pressure problems, certain cancers, arthritis and artery blockage. These potential benefits might be connected to fatty acids' ability to help cells rid themselves of waste. Capture these benefits from omega-3 fatty acids through seed oils that come from plants such as chia, flax and hemp.
Another major benefit of healthy fat is its anti-inflammatory properties. Fats are excellent at fighting muscle soreness and the hardening of arteries. In addition, they enhance your memory by supporting neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine. Some researchers say they even play a role in fending off Alzheimer's disease and dementia.
All fat, including saturated, increases serotonin levels. This neurotransmitter guards against depression, enhances sleep and relieves anxiety. So, eating plant-based fats means you get all these benefits without the added risk of raising your cholesterol levels.
In addition to providing direct health benefits, good fat enables your body to absorb certain nutrients. Vitamins such as A, D and E play a role in making your immune system work, creating hormones and maintaining healthy skin. These vitamins are fat-soluble, meaning your body won't absorb them without fat being present.
How Can You Access the Benefits of Healthy Fat Within Your Vegan Diet?
- Eat plants with fat-soluble vitamins and a healthy fat. One easy way to do this is to use olive oil to prepare carrots, winter squash and mushrooms
- Grab a handful of almonds or another nut that's rich in unsaturated fat after your workout. You might find your muscles are a little less sore thanks to the fat's ability to reduce inflammation
- Choose flaxseeds over flaxseed oil. Both offer healthy fat, but the seeds come with the added benefit of fiber. Tip: Mash the seeds, so you get the oil as well as the fibrous exterior
- Lower high cholesterol by increasing polyunsaturated fat in your diet. This compound lowers all cholesterol, though both the damaging and protective kind
- Target harmful cholesterol levels with larger quantities of monounsaturated fat such as olive oil
- Keep rice and oat milk in your diet because they contain little saturated fat and are high in polyunsaturated fat
- Learn the added nutritional benefits that come from foods rich in healthy fat. For example, sesame seeds are high in calcium and iron, two nutrients that are sometimes elusive for vegans
For more ways to ensure you're getting the ideal balance of nutrients in your vegan eating plan, check out the wide range of resources on Gaia. For questions or concerns about health and diet, please seek the help of a medical professional.